Dersu Uzala (1977), directed by Akira Kurosawa

I saw this movie years ago and liked it very much. I’ve been meaning to post it for some time. I’m not going to write a review of it, but rather include some I found online instead. I do recommend it. It is a compelling and touching film.  - DG

Here is one review from The Digital Bits:

Based on the real-life journals of Russian topographical explorer Vladimir Arseniev, Dersu Uzala opens on expanse of Russian forestland that is being cleared so a new town can be built. Arseniev arrives, searching for the grave of an old friend. He knows it's between two trees, and when he's pointed to the spot where the two trees once stood, he stands there and says mournfully to himself, "Dersu..." From there we are transported years back in time, where a troop of soldiers and fellow explorers, led by Captain Arseniev (Yuri Solomin), stop for the night in a clearing. While they are there, huddled around the fire, a nomadic Mongolian or Goldi tribesman named Dersu Uzala (Maxim Munzuk) stomps on over out of the darkness, settles by the fire, lights his pipe and introduces himself. Arseniev likes his spunk and invites him to be their guide. Over a steaming bowl of gruel, Dersu agrees - more for their own well being than his. The soldiers (and we, the audience) initially view Dersu as a funny old man - a comic relief really (much like Luke perceives Yoda at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back - this film was a clear inspiration for George Lucas). Over time, though, Dersu earns the respect of the soldiers, showing a great natural instinct and compassion for the land they are surveying - even saving many of their lives in the process. Dersu will even save those that he has never seen and, most likely, never will. At one point, he unexplainably repairs an abandoned shack and leaves a set of matches and a handful of rice behind so that any future traveler will be able to survive the night. But Dersu's compassion and bravery is seen more directly when it comes to protecting those he admires. While exploring a barren frozen lake, Arseniev and Dersu get lost just as a violent winter windstorm rears its head and night suddenly approaches. Dersu immediately comes up with a plan and together the two must cut straw (bushels of it actually) and create a makeshift shelter to withstand the sudden freeze (again, Lucas borrowed elements of this for Empire in the scene where Han saves Luke on the frozen plains of Hoth). Arseniev's not quite ready for what is about to happen, and he passes out, leaving his life in Dersu's hands.

Whether Dersu can save Arseniev or not is left for you to find out after you've explore this incredible film. Akira Kurosawa, known more for his samurai adventure films, directs this beautiful portrait of a man too noble to stand by as his world is swallowed up by civilization. Made at a turning point in Kurosawa's life (shortly after Kurosawa attempted suicide on December 22, 1971), Dersu Uzala is an exploration of loss, friendship and natural ties to the land we inhabit. It's a huge, sprawling film that is, at the same time, very methodical and slow paced. It's like a beautiful musical composition, that you lean back and listen to with your eyes closed, letting the music fill your soul. If you don't walk away unchanged by this film somehow, then... well, I dunno what to say. You're missing out on something I guess.

Image joined forces with Kino Video to give us this triumph of a film on DVD. The print they used has been kicked around for so long that it's showing its age badly. The print has lost a lot of color over the years - it's scratched and riddled with white density and dirt. A mess of edge enhanced shimmer plagues the video. But, I have to say, this is the only way I've seen this film and I think this may be the best we're going to get it. As a Russian/Japanese co-production, it's already screwed from the start. Neither country is well known for the preservation of its films, so God only knows how awful this film might be in terms of the negative's survival. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is pretty bad off. Presented in Dolby Digital mono, the track supplies the necessary dialogue and sound effects, and that's it. There's a horrible hiss layered under the track that, once you hear it, you won't stop hearing. That's a shame, because this is a really, really, great piece of cinema. But, given all the source issues, Image did the best they could.

There are no extras here aside from the American theatrical release trailer. And that's understandable, given the film's running time of 140 minutes. I don't see Image going two-disc for this film, although if they were to try, this would have been a worthy film to do so.

You can't fault the Academy for making this the Best Foreign Language Film of 1975, can you? Remarkable in every possible way, Dersu Uzala is a movie every film fan should have seen and every DVD fan should own. It may not be in the best possible quality, but for now, this may be the only way we get to see it. Hopefully, this is one earmarked for a restoration in the future. But I'll take it on DVD now anyway.

Todd Doogan


During an unusual chapter in the career of director Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon), the filmmaker went to Russia because he found working in his native Japan to be too difficult. The result was this striking 1975 near-epic based on the turn-of-the-century autobiographical novels of a military explorer (Yuri Solomin) who met and befriended a Goldi man in Russia's unmapped forests. Kurosawa traces the evolution of a deep and abiding bond between the two men, one civilized in the usual sense, the other at home in the sub-zero Siberian woods. There's no question that Dersu Uzala (the film is named for the Goldi character, played by Maxim Munzuk) has the muscular, imaginative look of a large-canvas Soviet Mosfilm from the 1970s. But in its energy and insight it is absolutely Kurosawa, from its implicit fascination with the meeting of opposite worlds to certain moments of tranquility and visual splendor. But nothing looks like Kurosawa more than a magnificent action sequence in which the co-heroes fight against time and exhaustion to stay alive in a wicked snowstorm. For fans of the late legend, this is a Kurosawa not to be missed. --Tom Keogh


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Tags: Akira Kurosawa, Russia, cinema, film, history, movie

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